I Grew Up Poor And Survived

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Last week Fabulously Broke had a blog post entitled, “Can you survive on an extreme budget and make tough choices?” She linked to a game called Spent, which was created by the Urban Ministries of Durham to show how many people end up turning to charities for help. In answer to her question I said yes, I could because I grew up poor. I’d like to tell you a little about it.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I was not born in this country. I came to this country at age 6 with my 5 year old brother and one suitcase each. I’m sure most of the things in those suitcases were not even ours. My mother had immigrated to this country almost two years earlier without us, leaving us with strangers in our home country. At the time she did not know that she could have brought her young children with her when she immigrated, but she didn’t know what situation she would find herself in, so perhaps it was for the best.

I grew up for the most part the only girl in a house filled with my mother, uncles, my grandmother, my younger brother and 6 male cousins. You can imagine how much fun that was being the only girl, but I didn’t mind. For about the first year here my brother and I shared a bed with either my mother or grandmother. When we moved to a larger house, I continued to share a bed with my grandmother, and my brother slept perpendicular to us on his own bed. I slept beside my grandmother all the way until I was 15. A bed or room of my own was not something I dared to dream of.

At least one and sometimes two of our meals were eaten at school and we always qualified for free lunch. I didn’t have enough pride to be ashamed of qualifying for a free lunch. Just having this scheduled meal was welcomed, because I knew that it would come like clockwork every day that there was school. I’ve joined the line at church or at school when the government distributed staple items to families. There was always a big block of American cheese, pasta, cereal and powdered milk. If we were lucky there was sometimes chicken. My brother and I pretty much ate chicken or eggs as our regular protein and beef on special occasions until our late teens. I ate my first pork chop when I was 19.

I never went on school trips, I didn’t have sleep overs, I didn’t own or play with dolls or video games. Money was to be used for more important things, but that was okay, I learned to be a library rat and virtually lived in the public library.

As the only girl clothing was a sometimes a challenge. My mother dreaded having to buy me clothes because I would grow out of it all too soon, but it had to be done. If not, I would inherit clothing from my male cousins that had invariably made it through at least 2 of the boys before it reached me. The idea of having an item with a brand name wasn’t allowed because my mother would have thought that I had lost my mind.

My mother saved as much as possible, and when I was 15 we moved into a house that she had purchased. Little did she know that just about a year later she would hurt herself at work and never work again. When we moved into the home my mother sat us down and said that we would all have to try hard to make sure that we kept the house. There was no money to buy a bed for me, so I slept with my mother until she purchased a new bed. I received her older, then 10 year old bed.

At 14 I started selling candy at school to make money. I knew that my brother and I, then high schoolers, would need things that my mother could not provide. At the time we both traveled at least 1.5 hours each way to get to the specialized academic schools that we had both been accepted into. Our book bags were falling apart and tied together long after the straps had broken apart. We had inadequate clothing and coats. In fact, I remember not having a winter coat my entire first year of high school. Did I mention that I live in New York City and that my school was on the water? I would wrap a large scarf around my neck and don a jean jacket from another cousin and pretend to not be cold. My shoes all had holes in the bottoms so I would plug them with cardboard. My sneakers literally had the imprint of my toes in them because I had outgrown them months before.

My brother had it worse. He’d hit his growth spurt and received no new clothes. His clothes were falling off of him. He developed bunions from wearing the wrong size shoes for too long which he still has to this day. I was fine fending for myself, but I knew that my brother suffered even worse than I did. I landed my first job at 15 and I have been a tax paying, social security contributing, never collected unemployment person ever since. The money that I earned at the various jobs that I held until I was 18 provided food, clothing, transportation, books, application fees, hair cuts, graduation dues, etc. for my brother and I until we started selling on eBay and I left for college.

Growing up poor in the U.S. is entirely different than growing up poor in some other countries. Even some of the worse conditions here can be better than some of the best conditions elsewhere. Homeless families here can be accepted into programs where a roof will be put over their heads. In some other countries when you are homeless, you are truly homeless. There are no resources for you. When you have no money for clothes, you go naked. I’ve seen it and I have always vowed to never live that way.

When I think about how we grew up, I am proud of the people that we have become and the path that we are both on.

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35 Responses to I Grew Up Poor And Survived

  1. What an amazing, heartfelt post. Thank you so much for linking to me. You should hop over to Revanche — A Gai Shan Life to read her post on Generational Poverty.

    Seems like a trend this week. I’m coming up with my own post on it too, as my parents grew up in poverty.

    • Sandy says:

      You inspired the post! It’s time we stop talking about poverty like a 4 letter word. Chances are that someone that every one of us knows grew up the way that I did.

  2. This is an amazing story, kudos both your mom and your entire family (uncles, aunts, etc) for being so brave to travel so far to come here!

    • Sandy says:

      No matter what, this is still the land of opportunity. If you choose to work hard enough, I firmly believe that you can overcome almost anything.

  3. Sandy, What a moving story of persistence, determination, and success. It reminds me a bit of my dad’s upbringing. It is rare in this society that the middle and upper class get a peak into the lives of the poor. You are obviously a smart, talented, and hard working woman. I believe, hardship can sometimes lead to great success. You sound like you are on the right path.

    • Sandy says:

      I’m not so far removed that I ever forget what it’s like. Even then I think that in comparison to some of my other cousins, I had it pretty good!

  4. Lindy Mint says:

    Wow, what an amazing story, thank you so much for sharing it. We all take so much for granted in this life.

  5. Sandy,

    Thank you so much for sharing. This post was so touching, honest and beautifully written, it has inspired me to write my own post. My parents immigrated to Canada before and I grew up poor, as well, though I was fortunate to always have warm clothes and food.

    • Sandy says:

      I’m glad that you were inspired. I think that there might be three of four of us ladies writing about poverty this week. I’ll pop over to yours when it’s up and include you in my weekly roundup.

  6. I think there is very good reason to be proud of where you came from. That’s a remarkable background that I think would ensure nearly anyone would never take their blessings for granted. Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. 101 centavos says:

    No shame in growing up poor, especially if you don’t know it. I had to wear some of my sister’s hand-me-downs. I just thought it was great to be getting “new” stuff.

  8. Aloysa says:

    Amazing story! Thank you for sharing. Stories like this one bring courage and inspiration.

    P.S. Still trying to figure out where you came from. :-)

    • Sandy says:

      ;) Keep trying! It’s part of the game. I could be from Latin America, the Middle East, India, Eastern Europe…Fiji! Who knows?!

  9. Hi Sandy, this was an inspiring post! My dad grew up pretty poor and had to share a room with 4 brothers and sisters. It sounds like you had it a lot rougher. It’s good to be reminded how lucky most of us in America are. Thanks for sharing, and reminding us it’s not shameful to be poor.

  10. Squirrelers says:

    Sandy,

    What an thoughtful, introspective post. This really gives me a much better idea of your perspectives. I’ve been getting into your blog more of late, so maybe you have shared more in the past that I missed. But this is good stuff.

    I appreciate the sense of family and taking care of one another that you share in your post. Looks like you’ve done a lot and succeeded by pushing through some challenges that many here in our country haven’t dealt with. Seems like you’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons.

    And yes, many tough situations here are far, far easier than abroad. I agree with you. Some folks in many places have very little food, period. I’ve seen it in my travels. As a society, we may have our shortcomings, but we have some things to be thankful for too!

    Great story.

    • Sandy says:

      I will always and forever be grateful to have grown up poor in THIS country. Growing up the way that I did, if you are lucky, provides a lifelong motivation to do better than nothing else will ever instill in you.

      I’m happy for the early lessons in resourcefulness than will guide me for the rest of my life.

  11. You really are my doppelganger. We had 7 people living in our 2 bedroom apartment at one time, so I too remember having the roll out cots stacked side by side in all the rooms.

    Funny, I was also going to write a post on living poor this week. Something must be in the air.

  12. Beth says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. It can be so easy to confuse true poverty with not maintaining the status quo, no matter how high that might be. Your story has given me a lot of perspective on what being poor and broke really mean and has made me realize I have never really been either (even though I did have to wear quite a few hand-me-downs as a kid).

  13. Sandy, this a very moving story. I find it’s so easy to take things for granted and its a good idea to step back once in a while and put things in perspective.

  14. This is why we need immigrants in this country. Immigrants know how hard life can be and has the drive to make a better life for themselves and their family. A lot of people in the US are too complacent.
    When we moved to the US, 5 of us lived in one room for about a year. I also got free school lunch. ;)

  15. Jerry says:

    My wife came from immigrant parents and I was really touched by your post. There’s so much that you can learn by starting from nothing and working your way up. It leads to character. When there is no insurance for success in life, if you have the basics of hard work and integrity, you can still go far.

  16. Sandy, thank you for sharing your story! This should be in your ‘about me’ page, it’s so inspiring.

    Your younger years have certainly shaped the funny, witty, articulate person you are now :)

  17. What a moving story. I came from a low-income family but I never knew we were poor until I got older. I always thought that everyone wore off-brand clothing because my parents never made a big deal about money. Thanks for sharing that.

  18. what a great story sandy and what awesome perspective – it’s always nice to let others know where you’re coming from!

  19. Maria@moneyprinciple says:

    Sandy, this is such inspirational story. I am honoured to have read it and to visit your blog. My respect goes to you and your family.

  20. Maria@moneyprinciple says:

    Sandy, this is such inspirational story. I am honoured to have read it and to visit your blog. My respect goes to you and your family.

  21. Andi B. says:

    I remember never feeling poor even though I knew I was poor. I got clothes because my aunts let me raid their closets. For a while, we ate because my neighbor who worked at Senior Gleaners brought us the leftover beans, butter, cheese, and vegetables. I think a lot of that is why my mother was so insistent that anything we plant in our yard produce something, in case we were ever in that situation again. Our school didn’t offer free meals, just really cheap ones, so I “worked” in the school cafeteria to get it for free. I never felt any shame about it, just was glad that I could do something to make it easier on my family, although that’s still a lot of awareness about the family situation for a 12-year-old. I think those experiences gave me more heart, more drive, and made me a better person.

  22. Anon says:

    This was so inspiring and to think that I have it bad! It really made me think because I know that there are others out there who have it worse than me. I too live in NYC and attend a specialized highschool :) I feel great knowing I can work hard and get a lot of money in the future. Thanks for sharing this, really.

  23. Anon says:

    This was so inspiring and to think that I have it bad! It really made me think because I know that there are others out there who have it worse than me. I too live in NYC and attend a specialized highschool :) I feel great knowing I can work hard and get a lot of money in the future. Thanks for sharing this, really.

  24. Peter says:

    I also grew up poor, but more well off than your family. It really makes me happy to read an inspirational story where you climbed out of the “poor-hole”.
    I have a post linked to my name that describes an event that happened to me about being poor, during school.

    • Sandy says:

      Peter,

      I always appreciate a good story about those of us who have picked ourselves up and turned the lives of our future generations around. Thanks for sharing!

  25. Peter says:

    I also grew up poor, but more well off than your family. It really makes me happy to read an inspirational story where you climbed out of the “poor-hole”.
    I have a post linked to my name that describes an event that happened to me about being poor, during school.

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